John Henry The Steel Driving Man space
space space space space space space
The Story
The Music
What's New
The Project

What's New

What's New Archives

New Book About John Henry from Oxford University Press

Read Scott Reynolds Nelson's new book John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend now. Bruce Springsteen is a fan.

John Henry Blog

Most new stuff will now be posted on the John Henry Blog

View John Henry art by Dan Dutton

Read Gary Sanders' John Henry screen play synopsis

John Henry
By Gary Sanders

Writing the story of THE REAL JOHN HENRY and the THE MYTH requires a TITANIC approach. The story of the Titanic and John Henry are similar as we know the endings from the outset. The ship sinks and John Henry dies. The challenge thus becomes to make the audience fall in love with the character before that happens.

Act One – Civil War John Henry is introduced as a civil war soldier. Having been born a slave in Virginia he escaped to West Virginia where he is on the side of the union. John Henry is part of the African-American division of the eighteenth corps. John Henry is shown performing a feat of strength and something heroic. The heroic act saves the life of Phil Henderson. His is also known as “Little Bull” because of his short stout stature. This forms a life long friendship. On September 29,1864 at the battle of Chaffin’s Farm New Market Heights Virginia, the men were pinned down by heavy artillery fire by the Confederate Army for about 30 minutes. The situation looked bleak at best. John Henry rallied the soldiers by a quote from Frederick Douglass. “Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.” Read more...

Act Two—The Love Story

John Henry and Phil Henderson a.k.a. Little Bull head for life on the railroad...Read more...

Act Three –Man vs. Machine

Upon hearing that the Chesapeake and Ohio—called the C&O railroad company were paying $1.25 per day John Henry and his new wife Polly Ann along with Phil Henderson headed for West Virginia. Read more...

This film is dedicated to those who labor.

Who Sweat

Who Toil

Who Bleed

And yes, somtimes give their lives.

Read Chris Love's new novel about John Henry, THIS TIME TOMORROW (historical fiction)

John Henry’s life, so far, was about working on a plantation with his father, Luke, in Huntsville, Alabama. The Civil War was at their doorsteps. Luke is murdered by their Master because he spoke against slavery and wanted a better life for his son. John Henry runs away and seeks the basic liberties as described in the Declaration of Independence. He is forced into a world where two sides are fighting over the destiny of 4 million blacks in the United States. He also learns about his own people’s origins and understands more about himself as he enlists in the Union Army and later champions the cause of being able to be a man, and nothing but a man. He meets other people who are attempting the find their own place in a new and hostile world.

Will John Henry find happiness, or will he die trying to be free?

Read the press release

Visit the official Web site

Purchase the book on

The Charles White Archive at the University of Delaware Museum

Charles White - John Henry Steel Driving Man

Learn to play John Henry songs...

John Henry Sheet Music

Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth of Roch and Roll

Check out this article:

Scott Nelson. "Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth of Rock and Roll." _Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas_ Vol. 2. No. 2 Summer 2005 page 53-79.

Read S.E. Schlosser's version of the John Henry folk tale

 Now John Henry was a mighty man, yes sir. He was born a slave in the 1840's but was freed after the war. He went to work as a steel-driver for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, don't ya know. And John Henry was the strongest, the most powerful man working the rails.

John Henry, he would spend his day's drilling holes by hitting thick steel spikes into rocks with his faithful shaker crouching close to the hole, turning the drill after each mighty blow. There was no one who could match him, though many tried.

Well, the new railroad was moving along right quick, thanks in now little part to the mighty John Henry. But looming right smack in its path was a mighty enemy - the Big Bend Mountain. Now the big bosses at the C&O Railroad decided that they couldn't go around the mile and a quarter thick mountain. No sir, the men of the C&O were going to go through it - drilling right into the heart of the mountain.

A thousand men would lose their lives before the great enemy was conquered. It took three long years, and before it was done the ground outside the mountain was filled with makeshift, sandy graves. The new tunnels were filled with smoke and dust. Ya couldn't see no how and could hardly breathe. But John Henry, he worked tirelessly, drilling with a 14 pound hammer, and going 10 to 12 feet in one workday. No one else could match him.

Then one day a salesman came along to the camp. He had him a steam-powered drill. Claimed it could out-drill any man. Well, they set up a contest then and there between John Henry and that there drill. The foreman ran that newfangled steam-drill. John Henry, he just pulled out two 20 pound hammers, one in each hand. They drilled and drilled, dust rising everywhere. The men were howling and cheering. At the end of 35 minutes, John Henry had drilled - two seven foot holes - a total of fourteen feet, while the steam drill had only drilled one nine foot hole.

John Henry held up his hammers in triumph! The men shouted and cheered. The noise was so loud, it took a moment for the men to realize that John Henry was tottering. Exhausted, the mighty man crashed to the ground, the hammer's rolling from his grasp. The crowd went dead quiet as the foreman rushed to his side. But it was too late. A blood vessel had burst in his brain. The greatest driller in the O&R Railroad was dead.

Some folks say that John Henry's likeness is carved right into the rock inside the Big Bend Tunnel. And if you walk to the edge of the blackness of the tunnel, sometimes you can hear the sound of two 20 pound hammers drilling their way to victory over the machine. Visit the American Folklore Web site


John Henry's Wikipedia Entry as of November 19, 2005

An African-American folk hero, John Henry has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays and novels. Like other "Big Men" (Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Iron John), John Henry was a mythic representation of a particular group within the melting pot of the 19th century working class. In the most popular story of his life, Henry is born into the world big, mean and strong as ten men. He grows to be one of the greatest "steel-drivers" in the mid-century push to extend the railroads across the mountains to the west. The complication of the story is that, in order to save money, the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black driving crew. In a bid to save his job, and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the inventor to a contest: John Henry versus the steam hammer. John defeats the steam hammer in driving spikes, but in the process he suffers a heart attack and dies a martyr. In modern depictions John Henry is usually portrayed as hammering down rail spikes, but older songs often instead refer to him driving blasting holes into rock, part of the process of excavating railroad tunnels.

John Henry was a popular subject for many blues and folk musicians. Songs featuring the story of John Henry have been sung by Lead Belly (singing both John Henry and a variant song entitled Take This Hammer), Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Mississippi John Hurt (in his Spike Driver Blues variant of the song), Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Johnny Cash (singing The Legend of John Henry's Hammer), Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Fred McDowell, John Fahey (who plays both an instrumental of the original song, and an instrumental of his own John Henry Variation), Harry Belafonte, Roberta Flack and Dave Van Ronk.

The story of John Henry was re-worked in a comic song by the songwriting duo The Smothers Brothers. In their version, John Henry takes on the steam hammer and is narrowly defeated, but ends saying 'I'm gonna get me a steam drill too!'

The truth about John Henry is hidden from us, but legend has it that he was a slave born in Alabama in the 1840s and fought his famous battle with the steam hammer along the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in Talcott, West Virginia. A statue and memorial plaque have been placed along a highway south of Talcott as it crosses over the tunnel in which the competition took place.

While he may or may not be a real character, Henry became an important symbol of the working man. Particularly important was his rejection of the classic "work ethic" so popular in the 19th century (and even today). The basic claim of the legend is that, even if you are the greatest worker that ever lived, management remains uninterested in your health and well-being. They worked John Henry to death, and then replaced him with a machine anyway. Because of this message, the legend of John Henry has been a staple of leftist politics, labor organizing and American counter-culture for well over one hundred years.

In 2000, Walt Disney Feature Animation completed a short subject based on John Henry, produced at the satellite studio in Orlando, Florida and directed by Mark Henn. However, Disney was uneasy about releasing a short about a Black folk hero created by an almost completely white production team, and John Henry was only released as part of a video compilation of Disney American Legends in 2001.

The legend of John Henry was a strong influence on the DC Comics superhero Steel, AKA John Henry Irons.

External links

John Steventon's Cartoon Tribute to John Henry


John Henry was a childhood hero of mine, and probably one of the biggest influences on who I am and how I live my life. To me, the legend and the man are the same; I still see him as a regular guy who was confident in himself, and never, ever gave up. When he needed a job, he went and got one, convincing the boss that he was the right man for it. And when that job of Steel Driving Man was threatened by automation, he challenged that Steam Drill to a contest, and won. Sure, he died in the process, but that just adds to his legend. The point is, he said he would win, and did, against all odds. What a role model for young and old alike! It's a shame that kids these days wish to emulate sports stars, when there are legends like John Henry to remind us what the American Spirit is really about.

Like Bobby, I often invoke John Henry's spirit when faced with a daunting task such as shoveling 2 feet of snow. The same goes for everything else in my life, though; it has been a long and difficult trek in becoming a Cartoonist. I went for years with very little feedback or reward except for personal satisfaction. As a Cartoonist, though, you really need an audience; someone to tell you that yeah, you're doing the right thing, and we like it! Some financial compensation is nice, too, and justifies in another way that you are doing something worthwhile. I could have quit at any time when I was down, could have given up when opportunity was right under my nose, then snatched away. I never did give up, though, and Knight and Day nearly became syndicated, and those popular strips made up my first comic strip collection. I am still not syndicated, but my freelance career is growing, and my cartoons are finally being reprinted in books and magazines and on the web.

So here's to John Henry... he never gave up, and thanks to him, I don't either.

Please let John Steventon know what you think of this cartoon and be sure to visit his Web site.


What's New Archives

Please let us know what you think about our Web site.